Poças – a truly family affair

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Poças is one of the few Port wine companies that is exclusively Portuguese. Founded in 1918, it has remained in the hands of the same family since its foundation. Essential speaks to oenologist André Barbosa.

Text: Chris Graeme Photos: Poças

André Barbosa is one of a new generation of oenologists. Before joining Poças, he had worked on many leading projects in the Alentejo and has been helping to develop the company’s experimental wines while being careful to maintain its traditional brands.

It was in 2015, after several years of experience in the field, having passed through different wine regions and various locations around the globe (Portugal, Chile, New Zealand, Austria), that André Pimentel Barbosa joined the winemaking team at Poças, whose business headquarters is in Vila Nova de Gaia, Porto.

In addition to his own unique approach to wine, he has brought many ideas and new challenges to the company since, in fact, wine culture flows in André’s family blood.

Curious, observant and an avid connoisseur of how things work, the Wine Director and Master Blender at Poças never leaves any project halfway through, due to his eagerness to discover the final outcome of any challenge. His contribution has been vital for the development of bold and creative projects such as Fora da Série wines. Since 2021, he has been the winemaking director of the company.

A family tradition

The winery is currently in the hands of Maria Manuel Maia, who represents the fourth generation of the Poças family. Pursuing a career in any field other than continuing the family tradition in winemaking was out of the question from the outset. She took a degree in agricultural engineering from the Universidade de Trás-os-Montes e Alto Douro, and a post-graduate degree in Oenology from the Universidade Católica Portuguesa, Maria Manuel has been in charge of viticulture at Poças since 2005, manages the three family estates, and has been a director of the company since 2020.

Considered to be “the Portuguese side of the history of winemaking in the Douro”, traditionally dominated for centuries by the Anglo-Portuguese Port wine families, the company was founded in 1918 by Manoel Domingues Poças Júnior who, over time, managed to convince his family of his knowledge and passion for the world of wine.

Poças has three estates covering 100 hectares, of which 76 hectares are planted with vines.
They are in three sub-regions of the Upper Douro wine region.

These estates, or ‘quintas’, are Quinta das Quartas in Fontelas (Lower Corgo), Quinta de Santa Bárbara in Ervedosa do Douro (Upper Corgo) and Quinta de Vale de Cavalos in Numão (Upper Douro) – all in regions that are well-known for their excellence status and a mysterious atmosphere, due to the fact that this area just started to be explored for wine purposes in 1791, by the time this part of the River Douro became navigable.

André explains that at Poças there are two worlds that combine. “First, climate change in the region is forcing us to view the grapes and the vineyards differently, with the style of the Port, red and whites changing. We are rediscovering the region, the way the grapes mature, the way we can explore and create new styles,” he says.

Second, André explains that consumer tastes are changing considerably. “Consumers used to enjoy eating rich foods and drinking full-bodied red wines. Today, however, lighter cuisine is more popular, with tasting menus that can be shared being more in vogue.”

“Today, winemakers need to create a wider range of different wines to respond to that challenge of a new type of consumer,” he adds.

In terms of Ports and table wines, the strategy is different. “We need to educate younger generations of consumers. They are trendy, curious and willing to pay a little more for quality wines.”

Experimental wines

Poças offers two lines of table wines: the traditional Poças wine,and a new project on experimental wines, begun in 2019. This new brand has an artisanal theme and is called “Fora da Série” – One-off or Limited Edition – and came about as a result of the desire to reinvent techniques, artefacts and stories from the past, as well as a strong curiosity to see what surprises might be in store.

“Fora da Série” is also unusual because it is experimental in character, and because it exists in a limited edition — thereby being marketed at those who are curious about and interested in the art of wine.

It is precisely these wines that were developed as a result of climate change. André Barbosa can be viewed as what has been termed as ‘smart wine producers’ who have adapted traditional wine-making practices and traditions that in Portugal are centuries old.

Because summers are hotter and winters are wetter with fluctuating grape seasons, it is difficult to retain consistency in quality, although Portugal has suffered less than countries such as France and parts of Italy.

“Some of these are the results of specific experiments regarding acidity and concentrations during the harvests and demonstrate the new styles of wine being produced in the Douro. This serial-numbered range of experimental wines had been selling really well in the UK market,” says André.

“We have also innovated by presenting Port wines in a different, more exciting way. For example, Poças has crated the Port wines that were matured in ‘balseiros’ to see the difference between the two wines, which have been aged differently and react to different types of maturation. We also repackaged our 20-year-old Port in a different way and the reception was amazing.”

But while innovation and creativity has kept the Poças brand trendy and relevant among the millennials, tradition and research have also featured strongly.

“We are currently trying to explore some of the older grape varieties and blending, while reducing the alcohol level in both Ports and table wines,” says Andre. “I think people are surprised by the wide variety of grape castes and the wines that we produce for such a small country.

“We have been educating the international consumer about Touriga Nacional – a variety of red wine grape, considered by many to be Portugal’s finest – but I sometimes think we have lost the Portuguese essence, meaning the blends, and the great varieties we have in the regions, in different soils and at varying altitudes,” André explains.

However, competition is keen between the many companies in the different wine aking regions of Portugal. “I think the companies should find a way to come together and communicate as one.”

Spanning generations

Poças Port, known for their elegance and irreverence, is the oldest wine of the house and the one on which Poças built its reputation. The knowledge built up over 100 years of Port production has been handed down from generation to generation.

In 2019, at the 22nd award ceremony for “Best of the Year”, held by the wine magazine Revista de Vinhos, Poças was awarded the prize of “Fortified Wine Producer 2018”.

But with the young generations in mind, the winery has also used conceptual design creativity and innovation. For example, Poças Tongue Twister Red 2019 has several facets, including sensual labels with cartoon-like graphics which can be altered depending on the language and culture of the destination market.

In fact, Poças has a clear strategy of repositioning the brand in the market based on a versatile house portfolio and the strong links with the artistic community that the winemaker has built up over the last few years.

And even in the Ports, Poças has responded to a market that is a far cry from the traditional image of enjoying a glass of Port with a fine cigar served with quality cheeses.

Poças has joined forces with baristas and mixologists who have recreated a myriad cocktail recipes that are fun and show that Port can be enjoyed at any time and in different ways.

For example, the company has worked closely with the barman and mixologist Carlos Santiago – winner of the third national edition of the World Class competition in 2017 and elected Barman of the Year in 2015, creating exciting new takes on daiquiris. Then there is the Port Smash, which used 10-year-old white Port mixed with lapsang souchong spirit, lime juice and basil leaves. Another creative innovation is its pre-bottled take on the Pink Lady called ‘Pink Desire’, with Poças Pink wine (rosé), lemon juice, sugar syrup, egg white and raspberries.

In response to growing consumer demand for vegan solutions, in January they set to work on their wines’ vegan certification, now starting with white and rosé Douro DOC and Port wines, but with the intention to cover the whole range in the long term. The vegan wines can be easily distinguished by the V-label stamp on most Poças wines’ black labels.

A wine vegan certification guarantees that all the criteria set by the European Vegetarian Union (EVU) are fulfilled during the whole vinification process, assuring that no substance of animal origin was used, but only substances of mineral and vegetable origin.

This might seem surprising, as most people when they think of wine do not imagine any non-vegetable proteins floating around in their drink. “For the market and consumers, the vegan world is becoming important and one of the products that used to be used in the clarification of wines was egg whites. We don’t use them in the vegan wines,” André points out.

Countering inflation

Poças produces around two million bottles per annum, leaning heavily toward Ports with a 70% ratio to table wines, although André says that table wine sales have been increasing in recent years.

Export destinations depend on the type of wines, with distinct wines often tailored for specific markets. Port wines are selling well in Denmark and the Netherlands, whereas Poças’ table wines are popular in Canada and Brazil. The United Kingdom is a big market for the company too.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent rising cost of raw materials, aggravated by spiralling energy costs as a result of oil and gas sanctions on the Russian Federation, the prices of cork, glass and even pallets has shot up.

“Of course it’s been a struggle, and we’re not alone in dealing with higher overheads in this sector since inflation has hit everybody. Because we’ve already been changing our production methods towards sustainability, both financially and ecologically, we have focused on buying in bulk, limiting the types of bottles we buy; we try to standardise the sizes of the corks we use, and use the same crates for these bottles and thereby keep our prices down,” explains André.

As to supply chain problems, André says that bulk buyers who are purchasing a million bottles invariably have less issues than smaller wineries who are ordering 10,000 bottles, simply because it is more cost-effective for the bottle producers and the distributors.

Poças met the challenge of Covid-19 by separating the production team from the office staff, the latter working from home during that period. Production and vineyard staff kept to their specific areas, had lunch breaks at different times, clocked on at different hours, that way minimising the chance of contagion among the company’s 80 employees.

Sustainable production

Sustainability is also at the heart of the vine cultivation processes. Poças has an agricultural production system based on best practices and respect for nature, sustainable management of natural resources and the use of natural control mechanisms such as the planting of hedges, maintenance of the variety of plant species, and the use of cattle for controlling weeds. In order to contribute to and encourage sustainable agriculture, the Poças vineyards at Numão and Ervedosa do Douro have been certified as employing Agricultural Integrated Production Systems since 2013.

Such systems have obviously helped in offsetting the problem of climate change. Changes in climate has changed the profile of the grapes, with younger vines tending to suffer more since the roots are not deep enough to reach down to sub-soil water holes. However, the more established vines are on average providing good harvests, resulting in mature, full-bodied wines.

“We also try and catch as much rainfall as we can at our facilities in the Upper Douro, using collected and run-off water in the vineyards, as well as using more water-efficient hoses to save water. It is changing the way we produce the wines and today we have a much more holistic and 360º approach to water collection, storage and management,” explains the oenologist.

Despite the many challenges facing the wine sector in Portugal, it has continued to grow sustainably in terms of exports. André Barbosa thinks this has happened for two reasons. One is down to the massive increase in tourism over the past few years. “Tourists have discovered that we have really excellent quality wines that are value-for-money and on returning home they want to continue drinking our wines.”

“The other is that the wide variety and styles of Portuguese wines due to the variety of grapes have become very fashionable. Online shops have played a part in raising awareness of our wines,” he adds.

Because of the company’s growing exports, as well as to cash in on Portugal’s growing interest in wine tourism, Poças is expanding its winery over the next three years. “2019 was a great year for us, and despite Covid-19, we enjoyed strong sales figures in 2022 and closed the year in a strong position with €8 million in sales,” concludes André Barbosa, Winemaking Director and Master Blender at Poças.